The Kalki Krishnamurthy award will boost Sai Subramaniam’s efforts to popularise the modest instrument
V. Sai Subramaniam is the first morsing exponent to receive the Kalki Krishnamurthy Award in the 25 years of its inception.
Sai grew up seeing his father, a self-taught artiste, play the morsing, an instrument now hardly seen on Carnatic concert platforms. At age nine, he could reproduce the instrument’s characteristic twangs. “ While I surprised myself, my father was shocked, as it had taken him much longer. My father then taught me simple nadais and korvais.”
The decision to undergo formal training was made after Sai participated in a fancy-dress competition at school. “My father suggested I go dressed as a morsing artiste.” More than the costume, the response for his playing was overwhelming. . His father then took him to senior musician A.S. Krishnan, who accepted Sai as his disciple right away. As the youngster already knew to play the instrument, he quickly progressed from basic to advanced lessons. Two years later, at age 13, Sai began performing.
The only child of his parents, who were struggling to make ends meet, Sai began to accept every concert that came his way to contribute to the family income. This also gave him the necessary exposure and experience.
Sai also got early introductions to many contemporaries, with whom he continues to play, including J.B. Sruti Sagar, Praveen Sparsh, Vasudha Ravi, Sumesh Narayanan, Vidya Kalyanaraman and more. He has performed with senior artistes like Suguna Varadachari, O.S. Thiagarajan, Tiruvarur Bhaktavatsalam, O.S. Arun, P. Unnikrishnan, N. Vijay Siva, Prince Rama Varma, Patri Satish Kumar, Abhishek Raghuram and the Chinmaya Sisters.
Krishnan would teach Sai both the morsing and mridangam. “While playing the mridangam, he would ask me to repeat the same phrases on the morsing for me to understand the difference. Frequent discussions on various aspects of the instruments helped me to think creatively.”
The morsing being a melodic instrument, the artiste cannot merely reproduce the mridangist’s playing. “I play to accent the overall sound. Knowing when not to play is critical.” Ghatam exponent Chandrasekara Sharma says Sai is one of the few morsing artistes who can play without the underlying konakkol phrases being heard at all. “Yet, he can match the play of other percussionists and their complex beats. His attunement to sruti, critical to morsing, is impeccable.”
“The morsing not being too prevalent, it’s very courageous of Sai to take up the morsing without any peers in his age group,” says Sharma. “He is keeping the art alive.”
Sai has shared the stage with violinist K.J. Dilip several times. “Sai builds excellent rapport with the other artistes and is open to trying out new things,” says Dilip, an opinion shared by many others.
Although Sai is unable to commit much time to teaching, he says there is demand for learning morsing, mainly from NRIs and foreigners. He hopes to popularise morsing just like Vikku Vinayakram brought the ghatam centre stage and how G. Harishankar highlighted the kanjira.
The author writes on classical music and musicians.